BRIAN BRENNAN: BRIEF ENCOUNTERS
December, 2014After 25 years of writing novels, Brian Moore was trying his hand at playwriting when I met him in Edmonton in 1981. He had adapted his novella Catholics for television in 1973 and now was preparing it for its Canadian stage debut at the Citadel Theatre. He was enjoying the experience of working with a theatre group, not least because it got him out of the house “As one goes on writing novels, one spends more and more time alone,” he said wistfully.Moore had been living in North America for more than 30 of his 60 years, first in Montreal and more recently in Malibu, in California. You could still hear the unmistakeable sound of his native Belfast in his speech. While he often had to correct people’s pronunciation of his first name, Moore still pronounced it the way his Gaelic-speaking mother had sounded it out when he was a child: “Bree-ann.”Moore told me that being around actors and other theatre people gave him a welcome opportunity to recapture the kind of camaraderie he had enjoyed as a young reporter in Montreal when he moved to Canada in 1948. After sharpening his skills by writing pseudonymous thrillers, Moore settled into the life of a full-time novelist following the publication of what he considered his first serious literary work, Judith Hearne, in 1955. From that point on, Moore missed “the normal sort of working relationship that other people have” because novel writing kept him “divorced from ordinary day-to-day life.”But he didn’t want people to see Catholics – set in a remote island monastery off the coast of Ireland – as a metaphor for the isolated life of the writer. Nor did he want people to see the play as a commentary on the current state of Ireland or the future of the Catholic church, though it did deal with an imagined confrontation in the late 20th century between a tradition-bound community of dissident Irish monks and an authoritarian Rome. “I simply used the changes that are taking place in Catholicism now as a metaphor, if you like, for the bigger changes that have taken place in the world in the last 30 years.” He believed the institutional changes precipitated by the Second Vatican Council had affected the quality of faith among Catholics generally, and he predicted they would eventually result in a different kind of Catholicism, “some different kind of faith in the next century, maybe, when we’re all dead.”Moore no longer considered himself a Catholic, although he had been raised as one, and he sympathized “as a fellow victim” with both the abbot in Catholics who was undergoing a spiritual crisis, and the title character in his first novel, Judith Hearne, who faced her own “horrors” without the comfort of faith. “I was brought up in a Catholic family,” said Moore. “My father was a very religious man. But I realized very early on that I was not religious, and I felt guilty about that. Things I had been told were true, I no longer believed in. In that sense, I tried to identify with the abbot in Catholics who lives in a community where everyone else believes and he doesn’t.”Converting Catholics into a stage play posed many challenges, said Moore. He had described the island setting in the novella as a “Beckett landscape, that place in which Vladimir and Estragon might have waited for Godot.” But, said Moore, “you can’t transfer that atmosphere of bleakness to the stage.”Nor could one really transfer the rainy climate of southwest Ireland to the stage, although the Citadel was going to try. “I think of the weather as being a very important character because it sets all of our moods,” said Moore. “Rain means gloom. Sometimes even bright sunshine means gloom. On the stage we’re going to try to use rain and gulls crying, with sound and lighting effects to suggest those things.”Catholics turned out to be a brave failure as a play. The literary language that had sparkled in the novella sounded stilted and precious when spoken by actors on the stage. And the Citadel’s way of handling the exterior scenes was to present them like a high-school production of The Tempest, with far too much reliance on spectacular effects. Catholics received one more production, at the Hartman Theatre in Stamford, Connecticut, and then dropped out of sight.Moore never attempted another work for the stage. He already had a new novel, The Temptation of Eileen Hughes, set for publication when Catholics was being produced in Edmonton, and he continued to publish novels at the rate of one every couple of years for the rest of his life. After trying his hand at playwriting, he had decided that novel writing was where he really wanted to be after all.He was happiest when he was able to say, as Moore did when he published Black Robe in 1985, that his current novel was different from anything he’d written before. Black Robe was a historical novel set in 17th century New France. Cold Heaven, published two years earlier, had been a psychological thriller with supernatural overtones. The Mangan Inheritance, before that, was a Gothic ghost story. The Revolution Script was a “nonfiction novel” about the FLQ crisis in Quebec. “I can’t go back to the same pool of material,” Moore told the Montreal Gazette. “I’ve moved on and time has moved on and, as I’ve become older, I’ve become more interested in different forms of writing.”Ten years later, Moore was still experimenting with different forms. “I’m extremely conscious that most novelists don’t do their best work past 60,” he told The Globe and Mail in 1995. “What keeps me going as a writer (he was then 74) is the belief that I can (still) write new kinds of books.” His current novel at that point was The Statement, a political thriller.All told, Moore wrote 19 novels. He died in 1999 from pulmonary fibrosis at age 77. “He made his name almost by stealth,” said the obituary in The Times of London. “There were no massive bestsellers, no headline-grabbing advances, just a steady stream of books. Heedless of fashion, he wrote taut, well-crafted, thoughtful fictions; remarkable glimpses into unremarkable lives.”Copyright © Brian Brennan 2014
Brian Brennan is an award-winning Irish journalist and author who has lived and worked in Canada since 1966. Trained at University College Dublin, Vancouver’s Langara College, the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the National Critics Institute in Waterford, Connecticut, he spent 25 years as a staff writer and columnist at the Calgary Herald, writing on such topics as politics, medicine, theatre and social history. Since leaving the Herald in 1999, he has freelanced for magazines and newspapers across North America, including The New York Times and The Globe and Mail. Among his awards are the inaugural Dave Greber Freelance Writers Award, the Hollobon Award for medical reporting and two Western Magazine Awards. His 10 published titles include several about the social history of Canada. His latest is an autobiography, Leaving Dublin: Writing My Way from Ireland to Canada.
Visit him at his blog, http://brianbrennan.ca/blog/
Brian Brennan also plays jazz piano, for fun and profit.
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